Controversial guest won’t speak on Constitution at LDS center after all, helps faith keep neutrality stance

“This is in harmony with church policy,” says Latter-day Saint advocate.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wade Alexander, dressed as Benjamin Franklin, listens to speakers during the Constitution Month kickoff at the Capitol on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

A controversial evangelical and Christian nationalist speaker will not be giving his keynote address for Utah’s Constitution Month at a building owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — as originally planned.

David Barton instead will speak at the Layton Christian Academy on the 236th anniversary of the Sept. 17, 1787, final signing of the Constitution.

He had been slated to appear at the church’s Bountiful Regional Center in North Salt Lake.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that Barton promotes the notion that the nation’s founders “never intended the separation of church and state but instead sought to construct a Christian nation.” His 2012 book, “The Jefferson Lies,” contained so many inaccuracies the publisher pulled it from shelves.

The move comes in the wake of widespread criticism of a letter by the faith’s Utah Area Presidency, tacitly endorsing the group “Why I Love America,” which includes at least one 2020 election denier and no known Democrats, to teach Latter-day Saints how to love the U.S. Constitution.

Tad Callister, co-chair of the month’s activities and a member of the organization’s board, is clearly identified as a Latter-day Saint emeritus general authority who sometimes uses his official church email to promote these events.

At the same time, top Latter-day Saint leaders maintain — and repeatedly restate — the church’s strict stance of political neutrality on partisan matters. Recently released Young Women General President Bonnie Cordon also is scheduled to participate in the events.

When asked about the venue change, Callister had no comment.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tad Callister speaks during the Constitution Month kickoff at the Capitol on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Critics say they have no problem with celebrating the Constitution, but they do complain about the way this group sees the nation’s founding and the implied support of such a view by the state’s predominant religion.

“The Constitution is an amazing document that has held us together as Americans and been a beacon of light to the world,” former Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said Thursday. “I was happy the church opted to not allow this group to use a church facility to host such a divisive event and distance the church from this partisan organization.”

To McAdams, the move shows that church authorities “meant what they said about remaining politically neutral and encouraging church members to dial down political divisions and find the good that comes from both parties by working together.”

Sharlee Mullins Glenn, who describes herself as “an advocate, volunteer, community organizer and a devout Latter-day Saint,” shares that view.

“We’re grateful that the church has distanced itself from this event and that the venue has been moved to a building that is not associated with the church,” Glenn wrote in an email. “This is in harmony with church policy.”

Glenn and others also are concerned “about the inaccuracies and partisan bias of the booklet produced for children and families by ‘Why I Love America,’” and which was sent to all Utah Latter-day Saint congregations.

According to historians, the inaccuracies include:

• “In the 1600s and 1700s, America was inhabited by Native Americans but did not have an organized government,” overlooking the Iroquois Confederacy and its Great Law of Peace (to which the Founding Fathers looked, in part, when framing the Constitution).

• The assertion that “the Declaration [of Independence] started the Revolutionary War.” The war started on April 19, 1775, with the Battle at Lexington and Concord. The Declaration of Independence did not come until July 1776.

“We applaud any efforts to celebrate the Constitution and to educate children and families about this great, inspired document,” Glenn said. “This could be done extraordinarily well here in Utah by bringing together constitutional scholars and others from across party lines. Our children can be taught that it is possible to both love one’s country and work to make it better — to make it, truly, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

Any efforts to commemorate “the great unifying document of our nation,” she added, “should lead to greater unity and not contribute in any way to the terrible divisiveness currently plaguing our society.”